How establishment Republicans learned to stop worrying and love Donald Trump
Late last week, The New York Times reported that President Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating suspected crimes by the Trump campaign, transition, and administration. Mueller was put in place last year after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the man previously leading the investigation. Trump’s attorney and White House counsel, Donald McGahn, threatened to resign rather than carry out the June 2017 order to fire Mueller, and Trump backed off.
In a sea of massive Trump scandals, this should be one of the biggest. It’s the clearest indication yet of Trump’s desire to obstruct an investigation into he and his inner circle’s financial ties to Russian oligarchs and, potentially, their cooperation with a campaign of cyber warfare against the American people. That investigation, which Trump continually derides as entirely phony, has already ensnared high-level Trump aides and campaign officials like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page.
Yet Republicans have been mostly mum on the Times report. Senator Lindsey Graham, often a representative for the establishment vanguard against Trump, warned, “if he tried to [fire Mueller], it would be the end of his presidency.” Despite the strong words, no action has been taken. Meanwhile, Trump has enlisted a growing chorus of Republican pundits and politicians to undermine the special counsel and, indeed, just about any institution responsible for holding him accountable.
The story of Trump trying to fire Mueller played out in hilarious fashion on Sean Hannity’s FOX News program. At the start of his broadcast the night the story broke, Hannity dismissed it as a mere distraction from the Times, and stressed that the story wasn’t confirmed. By the end of the show, Hannity admitted that FOX News fact-checkers had indeed confirmed the report. Hannity took a “so what” attitude about it, then immediately distracted his own viewers with footage of a car crash.
Ridiculous as it was, Hannity’s handling of the story serves as a microcosm of the entire Republican establishment’s relationship with Trump. No matter how far he goes, the rest of the party travels right along with him. Establishment Republicans have started to treat Trump the way his most fanatical alt-right base does: as a supreme leader who is not just above the law, but irreproachable to any standard of democratic norms or basic human decency.
When Mueller was appointed last year, he was widely applauded as an honest man of conviction who would give Trump a fair shake. Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Robert Mueller is superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity.” Now that Mueller’s investigation actually appears to be leading somewhere, the script has flipped. Gingrich now believes Mueller represents “the deep state at its very worst.”
Gingrich was one of the first mainstream Republicans to begin the process of discrediting the FBI and the integrity of the special counsel, but he has since been joined by the entire party and its media apparatuses. Conspiracy has reached a fever pitch with the #ReleaseTheMemo movement, led by sitting Republican Congressmen who claim to have evidence that the investigation of Trump is fundamentally tainted. Even Paul Ryan, who normally stays away from the far-right conspiracy swamps, called for a “cleanse” of the FBI.
One wonders how a party obsessed with law and order could come to so relentlessly undermine the nation’s leading law enforcement agency. Republicans appear to be frustrated that they haven’t been able to more effectively weaponize the FBI against liberal political opponents, as well as by the fact that law enforcement agencies are looking in their direction. At this point, the phrase “conflict of interest” is simply used to describe anything that conflicts with Trump’s interest. Any investigation of any Trump official is treated as sedition.
Establishment Republicans want to protect Trump, no matter what the special counsel turns up or how many institutions are destroyed in the process, because they know he’s on board with their extremist corporate agenda. Consider that Senator Jeff Flake, a leader of the anti-Trump resistance within the Republican Party, has voted with Trump 92 percent of the time. Mitch McConnell reportedly said Trump will “sign anything we put in front of him,” and Trump himself said exactly as much during negotiations on immigration.
Trump’s presidency has been a bonanza for corporate America and the super wealthy. Under Trump, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has relaxed regulations on predatory payday loan companies, including dropping one case against a company that charged 950 percent annual interest. Trump recently imposed a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels, a huge blow to green energy and a gift for fossil fuel companies that is expected to cost Americans some 23,000 solar installation jobs. And Trump’s signature legislative achievement to date, his tax cuts, will, by 2027, shower 82 percent of their benefits on the 0.4 percent of households earning $1 million or more.
Corporations know that under Trump, America is not just for sale, but on sale, with bright red tags that read “Everything must go.” Across industries, lobbyists spent more money in Trump’s first year than any year since 2010 — a reported $3.34 billion. If the result of Russian meddling in US politics is the fulfillment of their corporate wish lists, Republicans will enthusiastically embrace it. Indeed, the state Trump is erecting — or dismantling, depending on one’s perspective — looks more like Putin’s Russia all the time: a corporate kleptocracy of corrupt billionaires and state propaganda.
Some of those corrupt oligarchs have gotten their comeuppance in the Trump era, but their examples only serve to show how widespread the corruption is. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned over spending taxpayer dollars on chartered flights. Center for Disease Control Director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned over investments she made in tobacco companies after becoming director. EPA Director Scott Pruitt has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from enforcing regulations and put it toward his personal security detail — but he still has his job, because his job is to destroy the EPA.
Like any good don, Trump remains protected no matter what scandals befall him and his administration. It’s reached comical proportions. When news broke that Trump paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an extramarital affair, Tony Perkins, the evangelical head of the Family Research Council, gave Trump a “mulligan.” Trump once boasted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support; it’s beginning to look like he could perform televised abortions and not lose the religious right.
There are surely conflicts and muddied waters around the Russia investigation, just as there always are in official Washington. And there should be no love lost between the left and the FBI, who have always been natural political enemies. But the Republican attack on federal law enforcement in the service of their corrupt, divisive, bigoted, incompetent, and unpopular president is a disgrace the nation should wear for generations. Depending on how far Republicans are truly willing to take their defense of Trump, it could lead to a constitutional crisis — or worse.